If you’ve been following the news the past few weeks, you may have come across a series of stories describing the bizarre assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the exiled older brother of North Korea’s secretive dictator, Kim Jong Un. This type of thing–the flagrant murder of a political enemy by state-sponsored killers–is reassuringly rare. And when it does occasionally happen, as when Kremlin-backed murderers poisoned former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko in a London restaurant, the killers are usually careful to cover their tracks, making it nearly impossible to prove that the hit was orchestrated by a government. I recently heard a radio commentator discussing why such killings aren’t more common, and why governments go to such lengths to hide their crimes. After all, if you’re a nefarious dictator, killing your enemies seems like a pretty straightforward way of dealing with dissent. There are a variety of international laws and treaties that explicitly prevent this type of behavior, especially when it occurs on foreign soil.
You may be wondering why this international intrigue piqued my interest, and if I’m planning to abandon the world of cozy crime and make an abrupt shift to writing spy thrillers set in the world of bad haircuts and imported cheese. Luckily for the reading public, the answer is no. Rather, my interest comes down to the word the commentator used: “prevent.” As in these laws prevent this type of behavior. It got me pondering the age-old question of inherent evil. This is Philosophy 101, Hobbes vs. Locke. If laws weren’t around to prevent, curtail, strongly discourage, etc. us from being horrible and violent, would the world just be one big Lord of the Flies-style foray into the darkest cesspools of the human soul?
I’m not talking here about laws that prevent jaywalking, insider trading, and other selfish or thoughtless acts. I’m thinking specifically of killing. Setting aside the small number of people who are utterly detached from reality and social norms, those who are, say, deranged by severe mental illness, caught up in a war, or scarred by childhood abuse, is it true that the fear of legal punishment is what prevents us from committing violent crimes? I’ve thought about this quite a bit as I’ve invented characters whose compelling motivations and character flaws combine to cause them to commit or attempt to take another person’s life.
My feeling is that most basic laws against violence weren’t codified to try to scare people into reining in a natural propensity toward murdering other people. Instead, I see laws as arising from the inherent belief that 99% of the world’s population already shares–killing people isn’t something most of us would even want to do, even if we were assured that we would never be punished. Unless a very specific set of circumstances and personalities are in play, killing doesn’t happen. Sure, I’ve been angry enough to want someone dead. Just the other day, someone (obviously deserving of death) bought the last package of whole grain waffles right out from under me. But if you actually put a knife in my hand and said, “Go for it. No questions asked and no consequences…?” I, along with most people, would take a pass. Even many nefarious dictators would think twice.